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Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Dassault Systèmes provides design engineers in all industries products that provide portals to virtual universes in 3D design. 

 “Today, what is evolving rapidly is that all products and devices are not only being designed on computers, but they are also being tested on computers,” said Steve Levine, senior director, SIMULIA Strategy, Dassault Systèmes Americas Corp. “It started in aerospace. You can’t use a crash-test dummy for every possible design of an aircraft, or fly it into a hurricane to see if the wings will fail. The testing is done at the design stage in 3D virtual reality, many, many times before anything is even prototyped.”

As the Dassault Systèmes footprint continued to expand in the medical device area, its researchers found that the companies, particularly those working on implantable devices, wanted a way to ensure that their devices would not fail in the human body. In order to determine if the lead on a pacemaker will break, these engineers started with the same basic technology in use for decades to test if the wing on an aircraft will break.

While better than previous testing methods, there was still no true model of what a medical device would go through, mainly because there has never been an accurate, realistic simulation model of a functional human body. The structure and reaction of a mechanical object is not the same as a biological object.

 “If you take an artificial valve or a pacemaker lead that’s fixed inside the heart, nobody really has a detailed and accurate understanding of that environment, which has made it difficult to properly test any given scenario with a great deal of confidence,” said Levine. “So, we have been working with a variety of life sciences companies, leading researchers, and academics to make better and highly accurate models of the heart and other parts of the circulatory system, as well as muscle, bone, and tissue. Through that process, we felt that rather than just looking at a segment of an organ or the tissue, we had to take on the challenge of creating an entire virtual human heart.”

There were highly credentialed medical and scientific people in the research community who had been studying specific parts; the fiber structure of heart tissue, the electrical, the connection between the electrical and the mechanical, but each of these had been operating independently.

“Why not bring all of these people together?” Levine suggested,  “Then we could create a definitive model of the human heart that we could all validate, work with, and that the FDA could establish as a foundation that everyone could use as a reference for the human heart in their work. We created the project with that approach and we’ve had incredible acceptance of the idea.”

Dassault Systèmes built several 3D models just to demonstrate what is possible with the digital design process. A person can virtually walk inside these models and hear the heart beating around them, see the valves operating, and so forth.

However, the more practical application uses  a holographic tablet. It is a tabletop link where the user wears 3D glasses and watches the heart come to life as a 3D hologram. The user can move it, pick it apart, put it back together, and ask the same questions automotive or aerospace manufacturers ask: “What if I replace this valve in this heart with design A vs. design B of an artificial valve? What will happen to the mechanical valve? What will happen to the blood flow--based on real physics?”

The Living Heart Project officially launched in January 2014 with 18 member organizations, including medical device companies and academics, as well as the support of the FDA, which is working with and testing it against hard questions: “Will this work for devices such as  pacemaker insertion?” “Will it work to simulate heart failure and heart disease?”

The potential for total health care as this technology expands is huge. “I can see one day, people will go in for a whole body scan that will become a representation of their whole health history…every organ in the body scanned to a detailed digital model,” said Levine. “A doctor could scan a faulty heart or liver, and test implants and surgical procedures, before ever selecting the proper treatment for the patient.”

In the hands of scientists and medical designers, the future is unlimited. As Levine noted, the tool has just been created, but it has unleashed capabilities that opened the minds of the medical experts, and Dassault Systèmes will keep expanding the reach of The Living Heart Project to encompass other organs and systems within the human body to keep those medical minds stimulated.

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